Communication Currents

Keeping and Revealing Secrets

June 1, 2009
Interpersonal Communication

Most people have secrets of some kind. It could be as simple as hiding the purchase of a new gadget from a partner or as serious as an affair. The variety of secrets people keep are illustrated in the popular website Post Secret where people from all across the world post their secrets anonymously for others to see. YouTube also provides another media outlet for people to reveal their secrets, although with less anonymity. While many secrets, such as pregnancy or a surprise birthday party, are positive, we tend to think of secrets as negative or dark. The question that researchers often focus on is: What makes some people want to tell their secrets and others continue to hide them?

People often reveal secrets because it is cathartic or makes them feel better, which can improve their health. Even though venting about a secret often feels good, many people still decide to keep secrets from those closest to them. Most research on secrets assumes that people want to purge themselves of the secrets that plague them. Yet, there are probably other reasons why people decide to disclose. Communication scholars Afifi and Steuber created a Risk Revelation Model in an effort to test the decisions that underlie people's reasons to disclose (or not disclose) their secrets. They also uncovered different strategies people use to reveal their secrets. First, they surveyed 629 people about the secrets they were keeping from their family members, and the strategies they would use to reveal their secrets if they chose to do so. In a second study with almost 600 college students, a revised Risk Revelation Model was tested.

The Risk Revelation Model describes many of the decisions people go through when they are considering whether or not to reveal their secret to someone. Revealing sensitive or private information to someone is risky. People may worry that if the information is revealed, they could be judged, looked down upon, or someone could use the information against them. Or, they might fear that it will create conflict or change the nature of a relationship. They may also believe that revealing a secret will hurt another person or make that person feel bad. Accordingly, people think about the risks involved with revealing their secrets and it is this risk assessment that makes people more ready or willing to reveal them.

People are more willing to reveal secrets under certain circumstances. In addition to catharsis or the need to vent, Afifi and Steuber argue that people are more willing to reveal their secrets when they feel that the other person needs to know the information or has a right to that information. For instance, do people have a right to know that their marital partner was abused as a child? Do people have a right to know if another person was going to get in trouble if he or she did not have the information? In these situations, individuals are more likely to tell that person the secret. Friends or family may also encourage a person to tell a secret or continue to withhold it. A teenager, for example, might tell a younger sibling that he or she has an eating disorder and the teen request that the sibling not tell the parents. However, the sibling may encourage or pressure his brother or sister to tell their parents. Other circumstances, such as the passage of time and the topic coming up for discussion, may make it more likely that the secret is revealed. For example, college students may not want to tell their parents they party while they are in college. But after several years have passed, they may reveal this secret because it might not be taken as seriously.

The Risk Revelation Model also assumes that people are more willing to reveal a secret when they have communication efficacy or believe they have the ability to talk about it. Sometimes people may want to tell someone about a secret, but they just do not know how to go about doing so. They may not know how to bring up the topic or how to talk about it when it does come up for discussion. Results of the Afifi and Steuber study found that more negative secrets are more likely to create feelings of risk. Likewise, the greater risk one perceives predicted less willingness to reveal one's secrets under the conditions mentioned above, and less of a perceived ability to talk about one's secret. When the conditions for revealing the secret were absent and people did not have the ability to talk about the secret, they also were less likely to actually reveal the secret over time.

In addition to explaining why people decide to reveal or conceal secrets, Afifi and Steuber also examined how people actually reveal their secrets. Researchers tend to examine whether or not people reveal their secrets, but not how they reveal them. The authors found that people use six different types of strategies to reveal their secrets: (a) preparation and rehearsal, (b) directness, (c) third party revelations, (d) incremental disclosures, (e) entrapment, and (f) indirect mediums. Preparation and rehearsal includes practicing the secret with other people first and creating a script or story for how to tell it. Directness includes telling the person the secret face-to-face or initiating the secret, as well as responding to a person's request to tell the secret. Third party revelations involve telling someone who the person knows will probably tell the target person the secret. Incremental disclosures are telling portions of the secret or revealing bits and pieces of the secret to gauge a person's reaction. The fifth strategy for revealing secrets is entrapment because the person is leaving evidence of the secret for the other person to find, or reveals the secret in the heat of an argument. The underlying characteristic here seems to be that the person is being forced to reveal the secret. Finally, people may use indirect ways to tell their secrets, such as through the telephone, email, text message, or mail.

The research team demonstrated that the strategies people use to reveal secrets are complex. Results also showed that people often use multiple strategies to reveal their secrets—strategies may be used at the same time or one after the other. For example, a teenager might reveal bits and pieces of his secret about drinking to a parent (incremental disclosures), but he or she might tell the whole secret to a sibling (third party revelation) before revealing the secret to the parent directly (directness). People may also use different strategies when their first strategy fails.

Family members, in particular, may pay special attention to what could happen if they tell their secrets to each other because of the long-term consequences. If people worry about how family members react to the telling of their secrets, it likely influences the types of strategies they use to reveal them. People may be more likely to use indirect strategies, rather than direct strategies, with family members when there are greater risks involved in the disclosure in order to protect themselves and their relationships.

Keeping a secret requires a great deal of effort and decision making. The communication strategies that people use to reveal their secrets are a reflection of these decisions.

About the author (s)

Tamara D. Afifi

University of California, Santa Barbara

University of California, Santa Barbara

Keli Steuber Fazio

The College of New Jersey

Assistant Professor